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Personal Views

PaperTigers at 10
by Elisa Oreglia

Elisa Oreglia was the founding Producer/Editor of PaperTigers in 2002.  She is currently a PhD student at the Universityof California Berkeley School of Information researching the circulation and use of mobile phones and computers in China, especially in the countryside.

Happy Birthday, PaperTigers! And what a great age to be, ten years old. When I was ten years old, that was my golden age of reading: a treasure of picture books still behind me, to consult secretly from time to time, and a whole new world of books for young adults and grown-ups slowly opening up.  Around that time, my grandmother gave me a book of legends, myths, and stories from around the world which, at least according to the family lore, shaped a lot of my future interests. At the time, legends and myths from other countries were about as far as multicultural literature had gone, and I drank it up. I read the book in one go, and kept going back to the different stories, especially the legend of the dragon boat festival from China... see where this is going?

I can't say that I thought about these stories a lot or became obsessed by dragon boats in the following years, but when, years later, Peter Coughlan asked me if I'd be interested in working with him to create a website centered around children's books and the Pacific Rim, the dragon boats came back to my mind. I wondered what had happened in the years since I stopped reading children's books: were kids still reading myths and legends from around the world? Were there more books about faraway cultures now that the internet was seemingly shortening the distance between countries? What did children's books look like in China and India and other Pacific Rim countries? How could I say no to such a tempting adventure?

When Peter started talking about the project that became PaperTigers, children's books seemed to be going through a particularly euphoric moment.  'Harry Potter fever' had started in 1997 and had made it cool for adults to be seen reading young adult fiction, breathing new life into the field. Of course everybody was looking for 'the next Harry Potter,' but suddenly there was a general increase in the availability and diversity of children's books. Peter's idea (or what my selective memory remembers of it!) was that books foster mutual understanding; that the web could help bring books that don't have the budget and marketing force of Harry Potter behind them to a bigger audience; and that a website that spotlighted books (and authors, illustrators, publishers, booksellers, librarians, and the whole wonderful tribe) about and from Asia and the Pacific Rim, written in English, to an international audience might be filling an important niche.

The first thing a cool project needs is a cool name. We were debating the pros and cons of PaperTigers, uncertain whether people would imagine a tiger reading a book, or something that roared but didn't have much umph behind it. But when we saw Rolf Mortenson's beautiful logo, we knew that PaperTigers was right: the logo captured the playful spirit of the project perfectly, and from then on all I could see was a tiger reading a book... Eun-Ha Paek transformed the idea behind the logo into a beautiful and cohesive design for the website, and it is a tribute to these two gifted designers that ten years later the site looks as fresh, fun, playful, and adaptable to changing times as it did when it was born. Now, really: how many sites have you seen that have aged so well?!

Helping to create PaperTigers meant that I could—in fact, I had to!— spend hours reading children’s and young adult books and call it work, and that I got to know the wonderful community that exists around them. I have worked in different fields before and since, and I have never, ever encountered such a welcoming, friendly, and passionate community. Everybody was eager to help me understand the lay of the land, share their favorite authors and illustrators, explain the strange mechanisms of publishing in different countries, and to contribute to the website lists, illustrations, interviews, and content. Personal Views was a favorite section, because I always discovered new titles, mediated by the personality and sensibility of the contributors. And of course, the Illustrators' Gallery: I still have on my wall a woodblock print of Haremi Shinohara's brilliant wolf!

When PaperTigers was born, websites were still rather static affairs, without much interaction beyond an email address that people could use to get in touch. The model was still very much that of a magazine, which was great for building content and attracting viewers, but not so much for creating a community around the project. The more interactive phase, spearheaded by Aline, Marjorie, Corinne and Charlotte, with the creation of the blog, brought more flexibility in the content, and more of a sense of a community - I wish I could have had more of a dialogue with PaperTigers visitors back in my day!

So what will the future hold for PaperTigers? The blog first, followed by Twitter and Facebook, remind us that technologies change at neck-breaking speed, but the essence of PaperTigers remains the same: a good story, sometimes told with brilliant pictures, and shared among friends. I think the way of telling these stories, or rather finding out about and sharing them, will change even more than it has in these past ten years. E-readers, mobile phones, tablets and whatever the future brings will change the way we relate to content and interact with each other. Take China, the country I've been mostly involved with since leaving PaperTigers: many people there go online on their mobile phones (in fact, in the countryside the majority of people have never gone online on a computer!), reading e-novels is an extremely popular activity, and people socialize through instant messaging programs like QQ in a way that is perhaps unparalleled in the West. So, small screens, low bandwidth, small chunks of content, and lots of social interaction are all becoming more common. This is not necessarily the way things will evolve in other countries, but it shows that people will get to PaperTigers in increasingly diverse ways, and that at some point our content and ways of making community will have to adapt.

The other big challenge—or rather, role—that I see PaperTigers playing in the future is in continuing to support children's books in countries where a local children's book industry is just beginning. When I visited the International Children's Book Fair in Beijing in 2004, I was quite disappointed about the state of children's books, especially compared to adults' ones, which were often designed with an elegance and inventiveness that has all but disappeared in the West. On the other hand, India seemed to have wonderful publishers (like Tara Books, whose founder Gita Wolf we featured in 2004) doing pioneering and extremely original work in the field. So I hope to see—and I know that PaperTigers and its fabulous team won't let me down—more local authors and illustrators, more books in local languages or translated into English from local languages, and more young readers taking pleasure in discovering a world of stories, maybe through the PaperTigers Outreach program.  May PaperTigers prosper for a long, long time!

Posted October 2012

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